Therapeutic riding has long been known to be helpful for people with disabilities, but there's been little formal study of how, exactly, hippotherapy (as it's formally called) helps people. Now the Human Performance Laboratory at the Program in Occupational Therapy of Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis, Missouri) is in the final phases of data gathering for a study funded by the Horses and Humans Research Foundation's 2006 research grant, according to a recently released news item.
The study is following children with cerebral palsy during twelve weeks of hippotherapy. Researchers have been measuring trunk, neck and head stability and improvements that may be related to riding horses. Using a video motion capture equipment, the team can measure very precise and incremental movements in body parts. The participants were tested in the beginning of the 12 week program, after 12 weeks of riding, and a third time after not riding for three months.
The eleven children have show a significant difference between pre and post hippotherapy testing. "On average they have reduced movement at the head and upper trunk by 1/3 of their pre-hippotherapy movement while being challenged by the reciprocating movement of the barrel," reports Tim L. Shurtleff, one of the head researchers. "We can also show that their control of their heads has improved significantly, and that the range of motion of the head (highest and lowest head angles compared to the horizontal) and their movement variability (standard deviation of all angles through the timed test) decreased significantly. They also do not drop their heads as much forward, another significant result."
Eight of the children have also come back for their last test (three months after therapy treatments ended), with positive results "The take home message is that we think we will be able to show with objective measures that hippotherapy improves motor control of the head and trunk and that the improvement sticks with them," says Shurtleff.